String Quintet (Schubert)
Franz Schubert's final work for chamber ensemble, the String Quintet in C major (D. 956, Op. posth. 163) was composed in the summer of 1828, just two months before his death. Its first performance was on 17 November 1850 at the Musikverein in Vienna. It was not published till 1853. The work is considered by some to be one of the greatest compositions in all chamber music.
Analysis and discussion
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The work is the only full-fledged string quintet in Schubert's oeuvre. It consists of four movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo
- Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto
It stands out for its somewhat unconventional instrumentation, employing two cellos instead of the customary two violas, the example set by Mozart. Schubert, like Luigi Boccherini before him, replaced the second viola with a second cello for richness in the lower register. However, Schubert's use of the second cello is very different from Boccherini's, who uses the additional cello to create an additional viola line.
In common with other late works (e.g., the Symphony in C major, D. 944, the Piano sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, etc.), the opening movement is broadly expansive, accounting for more than one third of the total length. The second movement is in three-part ABA (ternary) form. The outer sections, in E major, are of an otherworldly tranquility. The central section is intensely turbulent; it breaks in on the tranquility almost cruelly, in the unrelated key of F minor. When the opening music returns, there is a running 32nd-note passage in the second cello which seems to have been motivated by the turbulence that came before it. In the last three measures of the movement, Schubert somehow contrives to tie the entire movement together harmonically with a quick modulation to the F minor of the middle section and an immediate return to E major. The Scherzo is symphonic and large-scaled, with the open strings of the lower instruments exploited in an innovative manner to create a volume of sound seemingly beyond the capabilities of five stringed instruments. The middle section (or trio) of this movement is an unearthly slow march that seems to predict the sound world of Gustav Mahler. The last movement is an exuberant rondo with clear Hungarian influences.
While it was thought by earlier critics to lack the polish appropriate to a work of high-classical art music, it has grown steadily in reputation. Current consensus holds that the Quintet represents a high point in the entire chamber repertoire;
The work is regarded as deeply sublime, with moments of unique transcendental beauty. It incorporates many unusual technical features, including the final two notes: the flat supertonic and the tonic, played forte in all parts.[note 1]
The second movement's plaintive mood makes it popular as background music for pensive or nocturnal scenes in film. Examples include Nocturne Indien, Conspiracy, The Human Stain, and Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. Also, Episode 21 from the Inspector Morse television series (Dead on Time) draws extensively from this quintet, as do certain episodes in Desmond Morris's BBC series The Human Animal.
Schubert's string quintet was inspired by Mozart's K. 515 quintet and Beethoven's Quintet Op. 29, written in the same key, as well as similar quintets by George Onslow. The instrumentation is reminiscent of Onslow, who used a double bass in some of his quintets. The opening theme of Schubert's work emulates many characteristics of the Mozart quintet's opening theme, such as decorative turns, irregular phrase lengths, and rising staccato arpeggios (the latter appear only in Schubert's recapitulation).
In turn, Schubert's work inspired Brahms in the writing of his Piano Quintet. The third movement of the Brahms work is also in C minor/major, and ends in the same manner as Schubert's finale, with strong emphasis on the flat supertonic D-flat, before the final tonic C.
Historical context and significance
The string quintet was completed sometime in September or early October 1828, but it was not published until 1853. Schubert submitted it to one of his publishers for consideration, saying that "finally I have written a quintet for 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 violoncello ... the quintet rehearsal will only begin in the next few days. Should any of these compositions by any chance commend themselves to you, please let me know." Probst replied, asking only to see some of Schubert's vocal works and requesting more popular piano music. Even at this very late stage in Schubert's career, it is obvious that he was regarded as a composer who mainly focused on songs and piano pieces, and was definitely not taken seriously as a chamber music composer.
The violinist Joseph Saunders had the second theme of the first movement carved on his tombstone; Arthur Rubinstein's wish was to have the second movement played at his funeral.
For John Reed the work appears to anticipate Schubert's death mere months after its composition, ending as it does with D-flat followed by C, both in unison and octaves. "As Browning's Abt Vogler put it, 'Hark, I have dared and done, for my resting place is found, The C major of this life; so, and now I will try to sleep.' " 
- Use of the flat supertonic is normally associated with the Neapolitan chord; but in Schubert's late works especially, the first note in this progression is often combined with augmented sixth harmony built on the flat supertonic rather than on the usual flat submediant. That characteristic harmonization is indeed used for a sustained flat supertonic in the bass part in the fourth- and fifth-last measures of the work.
- Geffen, Paul (1997). "David Oistrakh Collection, Volume 3 - Piano Trios". CD Review. Classical.net. Retrieved 2013-04-18. "The two Piano Trios of Franz Schubert are late works, from 1827 and 1828. They are large and complex, and each contains a great deal of lovely material organized in a conventional and sophisticated four-movement structure. They fall somewhere between the two great Quintets in style, between the cheerful lyricism of the Trout and the bottomless pathos of the great String Quintet (surely the greatest and most moving piece of chamber music ever written)."
- Einstein, Alfred (1951). Schubert: A Musical Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 291.
- Way, Joseph. "Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes". Retrieved 28 March 2011.
- Chris Woodstra; Gerald Brennan, Allen Schrott (2006). All music guide to classical music: the definitive guide to classical music. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 1210.
- "Schubert: String Quintet in C". EMI Classics. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
- Schiller, Jennifer (2006). Camilla Urso: Pioneer violinist (1840--1902). University of Kentucky. p. 113.
- Rosen, Charles (2003). "Schubert and the example of Mozart". In Newbould, Brian. Schubert the Progressive: History, Performance Practice, Analysis. Ashgate Publishing.
- James Webster, "Schubert's sonata form and Brahms's first maturity (II)", 19th-Century Music 3(1), 1979, pp. 52–71.
- Deutsch, Otto Erich (1928). Franz Schubert's Letters and Other Writings. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press.
- Reed, John. Master Musicians: Schubert. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 172.
- String Quintet (Schubert): Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Recording of the Quintet (MP3) (Discovering Music). Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: libsyn.com.
- 45-minute analysis of the work (RealAudio) (Discovering Music). BBC Radio 3.